Over the weekend, the former director of the Whitney Museum, David Ross, published a letter in the Wall Street Journal seeking to apply the lessons of my Montclair editorial to the rulebook for all museums:
Museums will lose the public trust if they evolve into vehicles for holding long-term assets until they are needed for the purposes of loan repayment or assessments of credit-worthiness. In fact, lenders and bondholders should be prohibited by law from accepting acquisition-specific endowments as security in any form. That would take the idea of misusing collections off the boardroom table, and would go some distance toward securing these collections for future generations.
That's good advice. But alas, it looks like not everyone got Ross's memo.
The art critic for the Los Angeles Times, Christopher Knight, usually sound on the issue of deaccession, had a momentary lapse of reason over my editorial. In a blog posting called "Bada bing: A hit job on a New Jersey art Museum?," Knight claimed that his "eyes bugged out" after reading my editorial "five or six times now."
First off, let me review the charge that my article was a "hit job." Knight claims to have "fact-checked" my story and found it "strictly circumstantial," but it seems that he did little more than pick up the telephone in California and make a long-distance call to representatives of the museum. Well, I talked to the museum representatives at length too, but I also visited the museum on several occasions, obtained the Christie's sales prospectus, and interviewed sources close to the museum both on and off the record. For example, I have it on good authority that the museum's deacessioning campaign has increased by ten times in the past six months. I also have sources knowledgeable of the museum's collection who have questioned the purported redundancy of key works in the sale (certain works even appear in the museum's published book of highlights from its collection).
This deaccession therefore did not strike me as wholly the product of a careful and deliberative process. It needs to be examined more closely under the light of day, which was the purpose (and I am happy to say, the result) of my editorial. Unlike Knight, who seems to care about little more than attacking a journalist's reputation (I notice he goes about collecting only the evidence he wants to hear), I have an affection for the Montclair Museum and the art inside it. I've done the heavy lifting to find out what's happening at the institution. Why would I take out a "hit job" on a museum I care about?
In fact, the only "hit job" is the one Knight decided to take out on me. I can't say why he did it, nor do I really care. By identifying me in his first paragraph as the managing editor of "the conservative culture magazine the New Criterion," as though this were relevant to the facts of the case, I can only assume that Knight had his feelings hurt by Hilton Kramer twenty years ago and now I'm paying for it. As long as he spells my name right, I appreciate the attention, but I am concerned that Knight's attempted rub out will distract us from the real subject at hand: the future of a small New Jersey Museum with an important permanent collection, and the implication of its actions on the stewardship of art in the public trust across the country. So let's step out of the henhouse for a moment and out of earshot of tongue-clucking bloggers like Tyler Green and review the facts of the case.
Knight says he read my article "five or six times." If he doesn't want to try a seventh, let me help him understand my editorial—I expect we are in agreement on most of the key points:
1) recent deaccessioning campaigns at several museums have betrayed the public trust. I discuss this not to reveal some "nefarious plot," but to put the Montclair story in context. In a general interest publication such as The Wall Street Journal, such a discussion is not "boilerplate," but exposition.
2) The Montclair art museum is engaging in a deaccessioning campaign. Since other campaigns at other museums haven't always gone well, let's therefore look at this case closely.
3) Well, as it turns out, this campaign is being done (in whole on in part—the ethics of the case are still the same) in order to back the museum's bonds.
4) In fact, when pressed, the Montclair museum director is upfront about this contingency. She defends her actions by claiming that the peer-reviewed organization AAMD has no problem with the sales.
5) Now this raises a greater question--if museums are forbidden from collateralizing their bonds with the art on their walls, is it appropriate that they should be able to sell the art and use the proceeds to back their bonds?
Knight writes that "opinions are nice, but they're better when built atop some reported facts." My editorial had both. Let's move on from quibbling and have a substantive discussion about the opinions I expressed and the issues I raised. Let's also help deaccession dissenters like the former Montclair trustee Cherry Provost have their day in the court of public opinion. David Ross got it right.